Purchased for $6 and later sold for $32,500

by Martin Willis

Back in the 1990s I went on a house call to see a past clerk of my father’s auctions. Louis Sochia was a pleasant man with a great sense of humor. He, his partners Charlie & Tom were selling their B & B (The Inn at Christian Shore) in Portsmouth, NH, and had some nice things to put in my next auction.

After viewing everything, we were at the top of the stairs, and I pointed and said, “How about that painting?” Louis and his partners laughed and Louis said, “You can buy that right now for $300.”  I thanked him and told him I would not do that, but instead would take it and do some research. It was a painting of a clown putting make-up on in a mirror. It stuck me as being masterful, but it was unsigned. There was something about it that made me think it was very good. Tom had bought a book on American artist, Walt Kuhn 1877-1949 and there were a lot of similarities. The next day, I brought it up to Bruce Collins in Kennebunk, Maine who I thought had a good eye and asked for his opinion.  He instantly agreed that it was by the artist and got out some books and showed me why he thought so.

I asked Bruce who would be the right person to look at it to make certain, and he told me to try Rob Ellowitch at Baridoff Galleries in Portland, Maine since he had represented the estate of the artist in the 1980s. I was also given the name of Terry Phillips of Cape Neddick, Maine as someone to contact. I called Rob and was on my way to Portland, Maine and found myself stopped for a disastrous pileup on I-95. I was stuck for hours in traffic and never made it to Barridoff’s. I stopped and called Terry Phillips who had inherited the estate of the artist’s daughter, Brenda Kuhn and drove to Cape Neddick to show him. He looked at it, pondered for awhile and finally said that he did not want to say one way or the other if the painting was by Kuhn or not. He was very willing to help and gave me a name and information of Bennard Perlman who could authenticate it for sure. After speaking to Bennard on the phone, I snapped some images and FedEx-ed them off to him the next day.

A few days later, I received a call from Bennard who spoke with an excited tone, “Not only is it by Walt Kuhn, but it is a self portrait of the artist!”  During the rest of the conversation, Bennard mentioned to me that it was important to know where the painting originated from.

The White Clown

I got on the phone and called Louis at the B & B and posed the question of it’s provenance. He laughed and his exact words were: “We bought it at the end if your dad’s auction ten years ago with a table lot of pots and pans for $6! He then told me the only reason he bought it was because he used to be a clown himself years ago when he was in his 20s. This was all news to me and added to this adventurous story. I asked Louis if in all the years as it hung at the B & B, had anyone ever talked about it? He said that there was one guy who said something along the lines of it being important, but that was it. The next phone call was to my dad, and he did not sound as excited as Louis. I described the painting to him at no avail, he could not recall a clown painting at all. I then sent a picture to him in Georgia and he called me as soon as he opened the envelope. The visual helped him remember the painting and that it came from a house along the ocean in Ogunquit, Maine. This may seem odd to anyone who is not an auctioneer, but for some reason, we can remember things like this.

Fast forward, as the auction drew closer, the calls started coming in and I knew I had a home run. When the hammer fell, the painting sold for $32,500 with active phone and floor bidding. The whole while Louis sat in the audience smiling ear to ear, I can still remember it as clearly as if it were today.

A few months went by and I got a call from Terry Phillips. He said he was impressed with what I did with that piece and to come on over to look at some Walt Kuhns’ for my next auction. This led into years of selling 100s Walt Kuhn’s works as well as buying the real estate at 1 Walt Kuhn Road in Cape Neddick from Terry Phillips.

Since that time, I have been  called upon nationwide, several times a year to help people authenticate works of the artist. I have seen as many fakes out there as authentic works. Some are easier to tell than others.

The record Kuhn $1,136,000

I truly enjoy helping people out and looking at these pieces, but I find it very difficult in some cases to work from just an image. A case in point; a woman sent me an image a few months ago, and I was leaning heavily on the side of it being a fake. She summers in Maine, so I met her a few weeks ago at her lodge, and the instant I saw the painting, I had zero doubt it was by the artist. You get to know the texture and brushwork of an artist as well as composition and work. If you have a Walt Kuhn painting or know someone who does and want it looked at, please contact me anytime.

There is a lot to say about Walt Kuhn; besides being an American Modernest Master, he was also instrumental in putting together the landmark 1913 Armory Show. Through this show, he was the first to bring Pablo Picasso among others to the US.  I could go into an extensive blog about all I know about the artist, what had happened with his estate,  his daughter Brenda’s struggles and more. I do not intend to do that, yet here are a few tidbits you may not read anywhere else: Walt was offered $20,000 during his life for his masterpiece, The White Clown. At the time, it was the most money ever offered for a painting of a living artist. The White Clown currently lives at the National Art Gallery in Washington, DC and would without a doubt set a new record if it ever went to auction. Kuhn’s daughter, Brenda had an adopted son who ended up getting in with the wrong group of friends. He, along with fellow motorcycle friends stole several clown paintings and when they heard the police was on their tail, they had a bonfire and burned them all to rid the evidence. Sadly with all this boy did, he would not turn the corner and ended up being disowned by Brenda as an adult. I have heard by many that Brenda was a very nice lady, she was protective of her father’s work and some people took advantage of her. She kept pulling the artist’s work from one gallery that was representing the estate, to putting it in another because of advice she was receiving. The estate at one time was in the hands of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries ~ luckily long before the big Lawrence Salander Art Fiasco. You will see many Kuhn’s works today with a SalanderO’Reilly Galleries label verso as well as many other gallery labels.

Here is a link to Walt Kuhn’s biography if you would like to read more on the artist himself, click here.

It is funny how one little turn can change your life completely. A $6 clown sold with pots and pans sure changed mine.


  1. Bud
    Sun 22nd Jul 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Great story, I love the “behind the scenes” on how someone gets started on a career turn.

  2. Donna Lilly
    Sat 28th Jul 2012 at 4:38 pm

    That is a really great story! How interesting it must have been tracking down the history!

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